Friday, April 28, 2006

I'm declaring for the NBA draft

The number of underclassmen declaring for the NBA draft has reached monumental proportions. Now, second-tier schools like San Diego St, Bradley, and Rutgers can’t even convince their players to stay more than three years. Iowa St. didn’t even make the tournament, yet it has two players declared for the draft. Even more curious, San Diego St. also has two players declared for the draft. The only saving grace for the growing trend of anyone with the skill level of Brian Cardinal or better declaring for the draft is that players can return to school as long as they don’t hire an agent. That gives them the option of coming back to school if they find out from NBA executives that their draft stock is lower than expected.

That doesn’t seem like a bad situation on the surface. It has certainly cut down on the amount of Dontonio Winfield’s come draft day. However, it seems like the ability to declare for the draft and then subsequently return to school has masked the fact that college basketball would be infinitely more exciting if there wasn’t the option to declare in the first place. Parity in college basketball has reached an exciting level. This year alone, George Mason, Wichita St., and Bradley made impressive runs in the NCAA Tournament. The main reason that mid-major schools are able to compete on a national level now is because they have junior and senior-laden teams while big-time schools often are left with sophomores and freshmen due to underclassmen declaring for the draft. For the most part, parity is a good thing. It creates excitement. It gives more people a reason to watch college basketball. In the past, players like Bradley’s Patrick O’Bryant would’ve gone to an elite school even if it meant riding the bench for a few years. Now, players like O’Bryant are choosing mid-major schools where they can come in and start immediately. This has become an increasingly favorable option for many top high school recruits.

However, the whole reason for the newfound parity in basketball risks being thrown out the window when seemingly every player with a pulse declares for the draft. O’Bryant is an NBA-ready player. I certainly don’t doubt his ability to be an impact player at the elite level. O’Bryant is clearly the exception rather than the rule. Players from Rice, Rutgers, Liberty, San Diego St., Florida St., Jackson St., Louisiana Tech, and Loyola Chicago have declared for the draft already. The increasing competitiveness of the mid-major schools will cease to continue if they can’t keep their players around for four years. Remember, the main reason that these schools are competitive in the first place is because of their ability to start experienced lineups featuring solid basketball players. This is an advantage that big-time schools don’t experience with the constant departure of young “phenoms” to the draft. With so many underclassmen declaring from mid-major schools, those schools will hardly be able to field experienced teams thus thwarting the mid-majors’ rise to power.

I don’t necessarily think there’s anything immoral or flat-out wrong about this situation. Since players can return to school in many instances, it’s a no harm, no foul situation for the most part. However, in my mind, I feel that college basketball has suffered greatly by underclassmen leaving early. The game used to be the most exciting sport in America with the possible exception of college football. The quality of play has dropped off considerably. Skills have diminished. The result is a sport that is nowhere near its potential. College basketball today is starting to resemble college baseball more than college football. The quality of player has dropped off to the point that many of the top players in the draft are from outside the country. How many “can’t miss” players are in the NBA draft these days? I don’t even know who’s good anymore in terms of NBA ability.

College basketball needs organization. The NCAA is a joke. It is concerned with two things; 1) making money and 2) punishing rule violators. It seems to have no interest in the viability of the sport sans the tournament. It seems to have no interest in making the sport as exciting as possible. As long as millions of people get excited about the NCAA Tournament, the NCAA is content. The NBA did college basketball a huge favor by implementing an age limit. That will only be a temporary fix though. Instead of high school seniors flocking to the NBA, you will see college freshmen flocking to the NBA. There won’t be much of a difference but at least it’ll help out somewhat in making college basketball more exciting.

The new age limit in the NBA (20 years of age or two years removed from high school) is a step in the right direction. That means that most college basketball players must wait until their sophomore year before entering the draft. However, my guess is that you’ll see droves of sophomores leaving school early. That could create a situation where there are more underclassmen declaring for the draft than there are draft picks! Nobody will know for sure how this will pan out but with so many high-schoolers wanting to enter the NBA, I have to imagine that two years from now, the early-entry pool will be three years worth of underclassmen pining to make the jump. The NBA and NCAA should be preparing for that situation accordingly.

I would suggest to the NCAA and NBA that players must be deemed “acceptable” or “qualified” to leave college early. Instead of letting the player speak to each team in an effort to determine his draft position, or even worse, letting players be manipulated by their agents, the NBA could decide who is eligible to leave early. Obviously this system would take some planning but it could be as easy as all of the NBA teams voting on who they would consider taking in the first round. If a certain player doesn’t show up, then that player can’t enter the draft. The benefit for the NCAA would be a more exciting brand of basketball. The benefit for the NBA would be more quality draft picks and less under-aged bench warmers.

College basketball managed to stay afloat in the early 90’s when underclassmen declaring for the NBA draft became the norm. It wasn’t until the number of players declaring skyrocketed that the level of play started to drop off. Players don’t need to stay in college for four years for college basketball to reach its pinnacle. The best players should be in school for at least two years (like the NFL). The next group should stay for three years (like the NFL) and the solid players with potential should stay four years (like the NFL).

Unfortunately, I don’t think anything will change. Frankly, it’s a bummer for college basketball fans. I’m as much of an NBA fan as anything else and I actually think it would benefit the NBA as well. The NBA doesn’t need anymore 20 year old bench warmers with no hope of ever contributing meaningful minutes in the next five years. That is what college basketball is for. Too often there are obvious problems that need to be fixed and too often nobody does anything about it. File this with a college football playoff under “things that could make everyone happier but won’t ever happen”.

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